Selling Stem Cells to Voters
If you thought embryonic stem cell research became moot after researchers found they could induce skin cells to become pluripotent, these news stories show the push is still on to open up more funds for embryonic stem cells. A ballot measure in Michigan is a bellwether for how scientists still feel about these tantalizing objects in a Petri dish, so near yet so far due to ethical concerns.
- Talking points: To educate voters about a proposal on the Michigan ballot that would remove restrictions on embryonic stem cell sources, the University of Michigan issued a press release called, “Five things you should know about stem cell research.” The goal of the article is to encourage citizens to vote yes on Proposal 2 for more access to embryonic (ES) stem cells, regardless whether “some aspects of embryonic stem cell research may pose an ethical or moral dilemma for some people.” Summarized, here are their five selling points:
- Scientists agree it’s crucial to move ahead on all types of stem cell research: ES, iPS, and adult.
- The embryos represent the earliest stages of development. They consist of undifferentiated blobs of cells that never grow into a fetus.
- Adult stem cells are only supporting actors in the quest for treatments.
- Induced pluripotent stem cells, though exciting, are not ready for prime time, because cancer-causing viruses are required to reprogram the cells into stem cells.
- Michigan scientists want access to their own embryonic stem cell lines instead of having to get them from out of state.
In support of the second point, Sean Morrison of the university said, “The embryos that are used for research are microscopically small clumps of cells, smaller than the period at the end of a sentence on a piece of paper. They have no specialized tissues of any type; there’s no nervous system, there’s no heart, there are no limbs. These are clumps of cells that oftentimes in a fertility clinic don’t develop in a healthy manner and that doctors would not be willing to implant in patients.”
The fourth point about the use of viruses for iPS cells was contradicted by an August story in Science Daily that said viral insertion is no longer necessary; a drug-like molecule can do the job.
- Blame to go around: Nature News showed that it’s not just ES researchers that can get embroiled in scandals. A paper about adult mesenchymal stem cells faces retraction after other researchers could not replicate the work. The authors are charged with manipulating images. The one being investigated said he made “honest unintentional errors.”
- Premises of promises: Science Daily article last month involved studying the causes of Down Syndrome with the use of embryonic stem cells. Researchers in London observed what happened to embryonic stem cells from genetically-engineered mice with an extra chromosome 21. The study did not use human embryonic stem cells. Nothing was said, furthermore, about how the study could lead to a treatment, other than hoping it might lead to clues some day.
Research on adult stem cells continues apace. Science Daily reported that skin stem cells show more versatility than thought. They can divide actively and transport themselves through skin tissue. One member of the research team at Karolinska Institute in Sweden said, “The stem cells don’t behave at all in the way we�d previously thought, and are found in unexpected places. We’re now investigating the part played by the stem cells in the wound-healing process and the development of basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.” It’s only when the signaling system goes awry – perhaps due to mutations – that cancer results, the article suggested.
Update 10/18/2008: Science Daily reported that a major hurdle for producing iPS cells has been overcome. Scientists at the Salk Institute succeeded in boosting the efficiency of the reprogramming process by 100 times, while cutting the time in half. They were able to get results from keratinocytes from a single hair from a human scalp. This “not only provides a practical and simple alternative for the generation of patient- and disease-specific stem cells, which had been hampered by the low efficiency of the reprogramming process, but also spares patients invasive procedures to collect suitable starting material, since the process only requires a single human hair.”
Look hard for any justification of the use of human embryos in these articles. What is it about human embryos that continues to drive scientists’ passion to own them? If iPS cells and adult stem cells can provide essentially everything they wanted to accomplish for human treatments, and if mouse embryos can be studied for theory, why this insatiable lust for human embryos? Were you impressed by any of their rationalizations?
Consider some background issues. First of all, there is still only hype to hope for cures from ES cells. All the actual treatments are coming from adult stem cells. Second, fraud is a general concern in scientific ethics and does not bear specifically on stem cell research. Any case of fraud, even in celestial physics, deserves to be investigated. The researchers in the adult stem cell case claim they made innocent mistakes. Even if proven blameworthy, they did nothing on the scale of the Hwang scandal (02/05/2006). In that case, the gold rush to be first drove the Korean scientists to stretch the truth. Adult stem cell research, however, has been showing success for years. The “me first” motivation was lacking.
To the heart of the matter: look at the U of Michigan’s five selling points for Proposal 2 on the November 4 state ballot. What can you find there other than greed and selfishness? The scientists cannot point to anything that ES cells will do to help humans, other than make their unethical work easier and pad their resumes. To show this, let’s rephrase their points to sell Nazi-style human experimentation on imbeciles. Imagine yourself in the 1930s listening to eugenicists advocate Proposal 2X that would loosen up restrictions on human research that “some people” might find morally objectionable:
- Five Things You Should Know About Imbecile Research
- Scientists agree it is crucial to move ahead on imbecile research.
- The imbeciles are not fully developed. They have no skills as philosophers or artists, nor will they ever be implanted in a university classroom.
- Volunteers with average IQs are only supporting actors in the quest for treatments.
- Volunteers with average IQs are not ready for prime time, because it is difficult to get them to sign the release documents without coercion.
- Michigan scientists want access to imbeciles without having to go to Germany.
Notice how the press release downplayed the moral issues. It emphasized the word some: “But some aspects of embryonic stem cell research may pose an ethical or moral dilemma for some people.” Who are the some people, if not the dimwitted citizens of Michigan who don’t understand that some university professor stands to make a lot of money or win a Nobel Prize?
Embryos are just “microscopically small clumps of cells,” Morrison tells us (the reductionist fallacy). If size is the issue, then all of us are mere specks of dust compared to the planet we live on. Embryos have no specialized tissues or organs, he said, ignoring the fact that they have the complete genetic code to build those organs. Children do not have their secondary sexual characteristics, either, if complete development is the criterion for humanness. The ES cells are going to be thrown away by fertility clinics anyway, he argued. God help us when utility becomes the standard for human worth. The comatose, mentally retarded, elderly and disabled will have reasons to fear The Science Lab with that kind of ethic.
Only Judeo-Christian morality, that deems human life sacred because we were created in the image of God, can save science from the Law of Unintended Consequences if all restrictions are eventually lifted from embryonic stem cell research. Arguing that fertility clinics should send their discarded embryos to science labs begs the question whether they should have been created in the first place, and removes the Judeo-Christian barricade to the slippery slope. Suppose, for comparison, we applied the pragmatic utility argument to aborted fetuses. “Women are going to get abortions anyway,” advocates could argue; “wouldn’t it be better to get some scientific benefit from the discarded babies?” A macabre market for fetal body parts would be created. More women would get abortions, because Planned Parenthood could lure its victims with the line that they would be helping Science. Abortions would skyrocket, and human life would be cheapened.
ES research advocates lure citizens to bite the bill by dangling the loaded word “science” in front of it. Those little cells in the Petri dish seem abstract, tiny, and impersonal. But though they have no limbs or hearts or brains yet, they are completely human. They contain all the genetic instructions for a full-grown human being. That embryo has the potential to be a concert violinist, a charity worker, a businessman creating hundreds of jobs, a mother, a president, or a scientist some day. You were once an embryo. Would you have wanted your zygote to be discarded or cut up? Whatever the Creator has allowed or disallowed in His own sovereign plan for the biological fate of humans is His business; it is not man’s to usurp. Oh, but you don’t believe in God? Then to whom are you going to grant the power to decide who gets the right to life? Dread giving that power to any man: his next victim could be you.
Civilization has, for the time being, reacted against the dark days of eugenics that classed some humans as imbeciles to justify treating them as subhuman. Dehumanization has always been a halfway house to eradication. We must regard any attempt to dehumanize human beings as opening a Pandora’s Box of terrors. The Judeo-Christian padlock keeps it closed. If scientists desire complete freedom to work on their fellow human beings as objects instead of persons with inherent dignity, we have the perfect place for them to set up their ES lab: North Korea.